'Tis The Season...for what, exactly?
Me and my dad (again) circa 2013
Thanksgiving is just under 2 weeks away, which of course means that the "Holiday Season" is in full-swing. Christmas music is on the radio (why?), the tree is up in downtown Memphis (why?), and it's already time to start Christmas shopping. Why? Somehow the Holiday Season has morphed into Consumption Season, and every form of media begins convincing us immediately after Halloween that the time for gift-giving is upon us! Songs, signs, trees, and sales point us to the idea that embracing the season and family time means showing love with stuff 'n things. But what if that's not the standard we have to embrace?
According to the Stanford University Recycling Center, "Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday period than any other time of year. The extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week".
From specialized single-use wrapping paper to cheap fad toys (I'm looking at you, Shopkins), the holiday season as we celebrate now is not exactly Earth-friendly. But gifts aren't the only way we waste during the holidays. Check out this article for some more stats on holiday waste, like the wasted "204 million pounds of turkey" in America.
For compulsive consumption
Consumption is not the problem. The problem is when we build our self-worth and show others' worth to us by compulsively consuming. What is compulsive consumption? I recently read a study for the Association for Consumer Research on this behavior, and they described it this way: "When we use the term "compulsive consumption," we are speaking about a type of consumer behavior which is inappropriate, typically excessive, and clearly disruptive to the lives of individuals who appear impulsively driven to consume[...]Even though the consequences may have severe effects on his daily life, the compulsive consumer buys anyway."
Advertisements and sales are designed specifically to convince us of a need, or something we know we don't need, but that we deserve. Although we accumulate more possessions than we need (or more things we want than those we need), the system is rigged against us.
Stimuli like ads telling us we don't properly love our family if we don't get them this thing and sales that trick us into over-buying unnecessary items while thinking we got a good deal make it hard to see any options outside the many-gifts-giving model.
For some, gift-giving is a love language. And for me, there's nothing wrong with showing someone your love or appreciation for them by giving them something useful that will bring joy to their lives. But how loving is it to wrap up whatever random toy or lampshade you happened upon at Target when you were already there to pick up window cleaner for yourself? That's not thoughtful, it's just a "gift" for the sake of it, because it's assumed you'll turn up with something that A. Has holiday-themed packaging and B. cost you money.
These cheap gifts may impact your wallet a lot less, but they impact the makers and their local economies far more than most people realize. I'll go more in-depth with the ethical problems of the most frequently shopped retailers in the second part of this series, but you can start by taking a look at the pretty well-known Rana Plaza collapse to see the kinds of conditions face the majority of garment workers.
In 1999, British writer George Monbiot wrote for The Guardian a piece called "We're Not Materialistic Enough" (*I personally don't agree with his thoughts on religion toward the end, but think his views on materialism are very well-said.) In the article Monbiot says, "Consumerism demands the fast and careless use of materials. It relies on our detachment from and incomprehension of the material world." When we rely on the model of giving lots of things to each other on holidays to show love, we detach ourselves from the social and environmental implications of our choices. And every year, it gets easier to do.
So how can we start this season to choose differently? What standard can we trust?
For Snow Dates and Adult Brothers Playing with Legos
I'm certainly not against being given, and giving, meaningful "gifts". In the next part of this Holiday series, I'll give some more tangible ideas for gift-giving in a more intentional and useful way, but for now I'd just like for us to consider what the Holiday Season could look like if we abandon the gifting-centered model.
It could be your best memory of this season was some thing you were given that one year, but I really doubt it. Sure, we all remember fondly the year we wanted that doll or game or shirt and were delighted to see it on Christmas, but what I think we hold more dear (or at least, we should) are the memories of pajamas and hot cocoa, of decorating the tree together, and of spending whole days together with the whole family.
So this week, let's just meditate on those rich memories of peace and joy, and clear out any expectations for this Christmas other than that we'll show love to our family and friends.
Next post will focus on gift recommendations, from socially-conscious companies to "experience gifts", but for now here's some recommended reading for cultivating the right heart and intentions this season.
- Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things (available on Netflix)
Whether you've heard of The Minimalists (theminimalists.com) or not, check out their documentary on Netflix. It's well crafted and really thought-provoking when it comes to the amount and quality of the things we consume.
- Everything That Remains
This one is also by The Minimalists, a memoir about how they came to question their things and money centered lifestyle.
Some of my recent essays on how we choose what to bring into our lives, and considering how we can make a positive impact on the earth.
A blog about reducing personal waste by the "queen" of zero-waste living, Bea Johnson. If you like reading on paper, she also has a book by the same name.
Stay tuned for the Part 2 of this Holiday Season series!